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NFL’S Covid Chill Warmed By Lebron’s Gift

“As a coronavirus crisis threatens the NFL season, the NBA Bubble brings joy and hope in the form of LeBron James’ latest and most impressive triumph, one that is being cursed in the White House.”

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You are excused for oscillating between the primal urge to emit sudden noises — a gasp when LeBron James wins for Kobe Bryant, a howl when another Tampa Bay lab clone rocks Aroldis Chapman, a groan when Tom Brady wants a fifth down — and the unavoidable disgust that the NFL is treating players like medical rats. Celebration is what sports does best, whisking us from whatever’s bothering us to crown champions and pity also-rans, but there remains a pandemic-era awkwardness of placing too much importance on winners and losers.     

Yes, James has won the Bubble, conquering the most arduous mental challenge ever faced by an all-time athlete with a Lakers team that wasn’t all that great. In the process, he made Our President seethe, lifting a trophy days after Donald Trump eviscerated James as “a hater and “a spokesman for the Democratic party, a very nasty spokesman.’’ Might this be the first of many losses for Trump, courtesy of an all-time sports great and activist who heard the critics last year and ached to quiet them? Didn’t this bring honor and finality to the late Bryant and respect for an embattled, family-feuding franchise?     

“We just want our respect. … And I want my damn respect, too,’’ James declared in a mostly empty building at Walt Disney World, home of a weird but fulfilled dream.     

Baseball is a story, too, with the Rays ready to wow America as low-revenue savants who just might hit a historic trifecta: trolling the fallen behemoth Yankees with “New York, New York’’ lyrics, teaching the cheatin’ Houston Asterisks about ethics, then beating the blueblood Dodgers in the World Series. Still, amid the cigars and confetti and restrained revelry, we should have guilty pangs.     

That’s because the NFL doesn’t give two snot swabs about the players’ wellness and safety amid its COVID-19 crisis, outbreaks be damned. This is not only my opinion, as stated often here. Now, players are echoing it. “I think outside of here, the people that don’t have to walk in our building — whether it is the league office, whether it is the NFLPA — they don’t care,” said the Patriots’ Jason McCourty, also leery of the players’ union. “For them, it is not about our best interest, or our health and safety. It’s about, `What can we make protocol-wise that sounds good and looks good? How can we go out there and play games?’ ‘’     

“My true opinion,’’ said the Eagles’ Darius Slay, “is we shouldn’t have even had (a season) because of what’s going on. It’s a difficult time.’’     

And yet, even as the NFL again closes facilities in Tennessee and New England as new positive coronavirus results inevitably pop up, the same corporate defiance prevails: The games are coldly rescheduled, protocols continue to be violated, the league and networks remain fixated on money, and mindless masculinity continues to march on — to the point in college football where a caveman coach, Dan Mullen, wants Florida fans to ignore the infection rates and “pack The Swamp for LSU next week’’ because “I know our governor passed that rule.’’ Jay Z had 99 problems. Gainesville was about to have 90,000 problems, until the school athletic director said otherwise.     

The NFL has COVID problems 24/7, with new cases in the Titans’ and Patriots’ camps requiring the league to move around games like ant traps and making me ask again: Why even attempt this madness? It’s stupefying enough that dozens of players have self-isolated, facilities and practices are routinely shut down, and the league suddenly has no idea when or if a $17 billion season will be completed. It’s an absolute mind-blur when every new headline should be accompanied by a scorching Eddie Van Halen riff. But you know what’s most troubling only a month into what will be a long, excruciating slog likely to include a Week 18, if not more weeks?     

No one is telling us about the children, the wives, the significant others, the parents, the grandparents, the friends, the people out and about in the community — the potential collateral damage when NFL players, coaches and team personnel don’t take the coronavirus seriously and act as super- spreaders. We know that the Titans have been egregious, with a stunning 24 positive cases. We know that a superstar double whammy, Cam Newton and Stephon Gilmore, has tested positive in New England. We know Patrick Mahomes, face of the league, shared a post-game bro hug with Gilmore hours before his positive test — “like, I have all my career and not even thinking about it … a mental lapse,’’ Mahomes called it — and since has been sleeping in a bedroom apart from his pregnant girlfriend.     

We know teams have positive tests every day, whether they are fully transparent about the results or not. We know competitive integrity and fairness is a sham, that quality of play will suffer and defenses will be non-existent as attrition and rescheduling exacts a toll. We know this is not a season to take seriously unless one is an owner, a player or a broadcast executive with a deep financial interest. “Unfortunately, Covid is running rampant in our community,” Packers coach Matt LaFleur said of life in Wisconsin. “All it takes is one guy to infect everyone else.’’     

“We’re fighting an uphill battle,” Bills coach Sean McDermott said. “We know there’s a challenge because of how easily this thing spreads.’’     

The bigger question is, what don’t we know?     

How many other people in this country have been infected — and will continue to be infected — because the NFL Insists on bulldozing through a season of games during a pandemic? Has anyone checked in on Gilmore’s wife and their two children? At what point does the urge to recoup billions, and feed networks with the programming inventory they need to stay afloat, verge on the criminal as Roger Goodell and the owners force-feed a season down America’s throat like cyanide? I, for one, was listening closely when the Patriots’ Matthew Slater described his mindset after his team was forced to fly to Kansas City during an incubation period and play the Chiefs. “A lot of us just wanted to make sure we were healthy and not passing anything along to our families,’’ he said.     

So we’re just going to keep doing this dance through October, November, December, January and Super Bowl week in party-minded and pirate-happy Tampa, in a state that largely thinks the coronavirus is a hoax?     

Yes, we are, regrettably. Rather than copy the successful NBA and NHL blueprints of Bubbles — in this case, enveloping each of the 32 franchises, including mandatory hotel stays until seasons conclude — the NFL office is locked in a stubborn ego-and-hubris trip. Goodell and his lieutenants are sticking to a flawed plan that could backfire at any time in any facility. They are convinced the protocols are sound and are pointing fingers at players and coaches for the violations, refusing to acknowledge that the league relaxed, too, and reveled in a God complex when September revealed few COVID-19 positive tests. In the Titans’ case, it’s undeniable that players flouted a league edict by working out at a school — and the organization surely was complicit, which should have warranted a forfeiture of at least one game for a 3-0 team dreaming of a Super Bowl. That is, if we believed Goodell’s memo to teams last week: “Protocol violations that result in virus spread requiring adjustments to the schedule or otherwise impacting other teams will result in additional financial and competitive discipline including the adjustment or loss of draft choices or even the forfeit of a game.’’     

But rather than hammer the Titans where it hurts, in the standings, the league sided with money and ratings by simply moving the much-awaited Titans-Bills game to next weekend, though a large fine is expected. By continuing to punish teams financially and not competitively, the NFL maintains leverage to keep teams out of Bubbles — oh, think of the huge costs! — and places the entire onus on players, coaches and personnel to avoid COVID-19. The demand, of course, is far from failsafe; as witnessed throughout the league, the comprehensive testing system is imperfect, even on a daily basis, such as when Gilmore tested negative before the game in Kansas City when he likely was infected already, leaving dozens of human beings vulnerable to a spread on the field and inside the Patriots’ two planes. That didn’t stop Goodell from being more bullish, now able to play Big Brother with a new league-wide video system that effectively spies on each facility to see if protocols are followed. Can you imagine this Park Avenue conversation …     

Goodell: “I’ve got Tennessee duty again today. I hear through sources that players were at a honky-tonk last night.’’     

Lieutenant A: “I don’t trust Adam Gase with his shoelaces, much less protocol adherence. I’m watching the Jets.’’     

Lieutenant B: “Gruden is a madman who refuses to wear his mask, so Raiders for me.’’     

They can play gotcha all they want. Why would anyone of sound or sane mind think the Tennessee outbreak is an aberration in a league of 2,200-plus players and some 1,500 coaches and support staff? “It takes one guy to go to the grocery store and it’s as simple as that,” said Bills quarterback and early MVP candidate Josh Allen. “You’ve got to hope that guys are wearing their masks and the contact tracers are working.’’ But Goodell is flying blind, and considering he’s capable of bad decisions when he can see, the season ahead is a scary proposition. The virtual Bubbles have a much better chance of working than the status quo. Ask Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred, who wouldn’t be pulling off what has become a compelling postseason without forcing teams into Bubbles this month in Texas and California. The NFLPA would need extra incentives, but the Titans’ outbreak might have changed players’ minds about restrictive confinement. Said Mahomes: “If it happened, for me, I love the game and I know how special this team is, so I’d be willing.’’     

In truth, the NFL and college football’s Power Five conferences aren’t receiving enough public backlash about exposing players to danger. When much of America isn’t treating the coronavirus with appropriate concern — starting with the continuing follies of the COVIDiot-in-Chief, football’s powers-that-be can afford to be cavalier and keep playing the games so the billions roll in. Then they trot out their versions of Tony Fauci — in the NFL’s case, Dr. Allen Sills, who says, “It’s critically important that we do not grow complacent in our rigorous application of measures proven to be impactful. This 2020 season, our common opponent is COVID — it’s all of us together versus the virus.”     

Unless you’re the Titans, who have adopted a bizarre us-versus-the-media stance when they should be thankful those infected are recovering. “It’s a snap-to-judgment society that we live in today,’’ said quarterback Ryan Tannehill, who also doesn’t trust the testing system. “People feel empowered to have strong opinions and go to extremes without knowing the details of how things went down. I’m of the opinion that you should find out details before you jump down someone’s throat.’’     

Though pandemic sports viewership is significantly gutted — even the almighty NFL was down 10 percent heading into Week 5 — enough people are watching to more than keep the lights on at the leagues and networks. If Trump and Joe Biden are the main entertainment on the phalanx of news channels, sports continues to be an effective sideshow. And the games have delivered, whether it’s a close finish or the return of Washington’s Alex Smith from his grotesque broken leg, a glorious scene tarnished when Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott suffered a gruesome ankle injury. This is why the NFL and college football ramble on, figuring enough people are interested — look, Nick Saban thinks Lane Kiffin knew his defensive signals — to keep pushing a dangerous envelope. As I’ve said at least 99 times, football is not played in a Bubble. The NBA season was.     

Which allowed James to win his fourth championship — for Kobe, for a Lakers franchise not long ago in disarray, for social justice and, of course, for himself. This one will not make him the greatest basketball player ever, but it will give him peace, going on age 36, that he overcame attrition and emotional fatigue when his younger rivals did not. What are Kawhi Leonard and Giannis Antetokounmpo thinking when they weren’t good enough to even reach the Finals? When twice-fired head coach Frank Vogel, who was supposed to be knifed in the back by assistant Jason Kidd, earned James’ respect — and won a title that rescued the slumping reputations of owner Jeanie Buss and basketball boss Rob Pelinka? Jimmy Butler was LeBron’s equal for five games, but he and the Heat ran out of juice.     

“There were times I questioned whether I should be here,’’ James said. “Is it worth sacrificing my family? I’ve never been away from my family for so long. Shout out here to the late, great Steve Jobs. Without him, those FaceTime calls wouldn’t have happened.     

“Our ballclub got here back on July 9. It’s October 11 now. This was very challenging and difficult. It played with your mind and your body. You were away from the things that made you successful.’’     

But he kept hearing the voices of doom. “There were still rumblings of doubt when comparing me in the history of the game: `Has he done this, has he done that?’ Having that in my mind fueled me,’’ he said.     

He also knew that a divided America needed his voice. “Social injustice, voter suppression, police brutality — to have this platform, it’s something you will miss and think back on,’’ James said. “We also had zero positive tests for as long as we were down here — 95 days for myself. I had a little calendar I was checking off. But seriously, zero positive tests. That is an accomplishment.’’     

There will be no parades in Los Angeles, where, unlike Florida, the city is too fixated on COVID to issue special event permits. But the Dodgers are inviting fans to Chavez Ravine for a drive-in watch party in the parking lot. Price per car for each game of the National League championship series in Arlington, Texas: $75, with fans allowed to bring food and non-alcoholic beverages. The Dodgers require masks if fans want to use restrooms, which is more prudent than what they’re doing in Arlington, where MLB is only defeating the Bubble purpose by permitting 11,500 fans per game. Are Manfred and Dan Mullen sharing notes?      

The dream World Series in L.A. — and for America, really — would be Dodgers-Astros. That way, after three years of organizational and fan-base anger about Houston scamming to win the 2017 Series, the Dodgers would have a legitimate revenge shot, not having to settle for Joe Kelly throwing at Houston batters and making pouty faces. Imagine, Dodger Blue beating the unrepentant liars days before the election. But baseball operations president Andrew Friedman may have been premature in saying this on Sirius XM radio: ““Like, I get that it’s been a difficult year for them, but to play the victim card, I think, has been, you know, a curious strategy.’’ See, loaded as the lineup is, the Dodgers still have Kenley Jansen issues. And not having an established closer could be trouble against the Braves and their mashers, accompanied by a pitching staff that has thrown four postseason shutouts.     

Inside quiet ballparks such as San Diego, site of the American League championship series, at least the Astros can say they don’t need to steal signs and bang trash cans to win. A formidable lineup makes contact and puts pressure on pitchers, with Carlos Correa in MVP form. And they aren’t gloating as much, refusing to rip critics like before. “Absolutely not. We’re motivated because we want to win,’’ Correa said. “We want to bring another championship to Houston. We know what it feels like, so we want have that feeling once again. 2017 was such a special year celebrating with the fans in Houston. The thing that motivates is to get to feel that again.’’     

Ugh. No longer armed with Gerrit Cole and the injured Justin Verlander, the Astros will be underdogs against the Rays, who manufacture victories with skilled starting pitching, a fireballing bullpen and typical Tampa creations such as Cardinals castoff Randy Arozarena, a Cuban defector who spent his own COVID quarantine doing 300 daily pushups and adding 15 pounds of muscle. The result has been a Mr. October transformation, his power bat spooking the Yankees. The conquering hero is Mike Brosseau, an undrafted find who symbolizes the Rays Way. Remember when the snarling Chapman almost beheaded him in September with a 101-mph heater, which led to counter threats by manager Kevin Cash? On the 10th pitch of an all-time at-bat, Brosseau sent a 100-mph pitch over the fence, giving the small-market Rays their latest triumph over the pinstriped colossus.     

As the celebration continued in fan-vacant Petco Park, first baseman Ji-Man Choi was kicking over and stomping on a recycling bin. Hello, Houston. You have a problem. Might the Rays join the NHL’s Lightning in a Tampa Bay title perfecta, pandemic style? Brady and the Buccaneers would love to join the fun, but last we saw our ageless wonder in Chicago, he was raising four fingers after his final incompletion, trying to trick the officials into giving him another try. Is that how desperate he has become with a team battling penalties and injuries? “When you’re 43 years old, as you start to get older, it becomes harder to come back from these types of games,” Fox analyst Troy Aikman said. Brady says he doesn’t miss the cold weather of New England, calling himself “a Floridian for as long as I can envision now.’’ At this point, with Brady throwing clipboards and Newton recovering from COVID, the Great Brady-Belichick 2020 comparison debate is on hold.

It could be our grandest sports memory of 2020 is Rafael Nadal in Paris. Not because he won his 13th French Open title and 20th Grand Slam event, which places him a tie with Roger Federer for most all-time, but because he provided precious dignity. He beat Novak Djokovic, the ugly man who threw a summer COVID party and infected himself and others, then was tossed from the U.S. Open when he whacked a ball in frustration and struck a linesperson in the throat. But it was Nadal’s commentary on the global mood that will stick.     

“The feeling is more sad than usual,” the Spaniard said. “Maybe that’s what it needs to feel like. It needs to be sad. Many people in the world are suffering.’’     

Perspective. Why must we cross an ocean to find it?

BSM Writers

Why Charles Barkley Is Sports Television’s Most Valuable Personality

Barkley is a larger-than-life personality. His analysis is sometimes way out there, but it either makes you think, scratch your head or laugh.

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Once the Western Conference Finals end, so will the season for Charles Barkley and his TNT crew. Inside The NBA has become ‘must watch’ television over the last few years. In my opinion, it is the best of its kind in any sport right now.

The chemistry displayed on the ITN set is unparalleled. Charles Barkley is one of the biggest reasons to tune in. He’s unfiltered, he’s real and he’s always himself.

I’m not the only one that feels that way. Former ESPN boss and current Meadowlark Media front man, John Skipper, recently appeared on the Dan Patrick Show to sing the praises of Barkley. Skipper puts him among the greats in broadcasting.

“I think there are only three or four people in the history of broadcasting that you can
genuinely say people tune in to see them. The late, great John Madden, who just recently
passed, was one of those guys. Barkley is the guy right now in all of sports that you can say
people will tune in to see him.” Skipper said.

John is on to something here. Barkley is a larger-than-life personality. His analysis is sometimes way out there, but it either makes you think, scratch your head or laugh.

Sometimes all of those things happen at the same time. Barkley’s commentary is usually the stuff that floods the internet that night, and is the talk of your office, or friends the next day.

Seemingly if you miss it, you’re a little behind the times. I mean, the man made a grand entrance to the set the other night in Dallas. He rode to the set on a horse just before Game 3 of the Western Conference Finals between the Mavericks and Warriors. Shaquille O’Neal joked that to carry Barkley’s body, the horse had to have “a strong back” and he kept saying “please fall!” as Barkley had a little trouble with the dismount. Leading Barkley to exclaim, “I grew up in Alabama, brother, I know how to ride a horse.”

This is one of the reasons I think Skipper believes what he does. Barkley is always up to
something, no matter how silly it may make him look or how outlandish it might be. This guy is confident in pretty much everything he does, with the possible exception of his golf game. He can dish it out for sure, but Barkley can take it as well, which usually results in something hilarious. He has personality and its genuine. That makes him likable whether you agree with him or not.

Barkley is also the best kind of humorous, the unintentional kind. It works.

While Skipper is dead on about Barkley, it does beg the question, would Charles be as popular
without his cohorts on Inside the NBA? It’s like asking if the talented lead singer of a band, would be as popular as a solo artist. In this case, I wonder. You’ve heard of ‘system
quarterbacks’, right? I think the formula works for Barkley, in part because of the surrounding
cast. While people may tune in to see Barkley, they can’t help but notice the other guys on set and understand why Charles can be Charles. It’s because the entire dynamic works.

Take Barkley off the show, it’s not as good. Take Kenny off the show, same. Take Shaq off, also same. Take Ernie off, well you get the picture here. They each have unique personalities and the ability to be themselves and work as a group. Each brings something to the table, but the key ingredient is not taking themselves too seriously. They all enjoy being there.

Skipper saw that part of the equation as well and knows why the show is what it is, a success.

“It’s because they look like they’re having fun. They know what they’re talking about. They’re
willing to be provocative, they’re willing to mash it up, and it’s great.” said Skipper to the Dan Patrick Show.

The former players mesh like they are family. EJ is the patriarch that lets the guys be guys and jumps in when it looks like it may go off the rails. Fighting is all part of it. Heated arguments take place from time to time with strong, opinionated former players each thinking he is right. In the flow of the show, it’s actually entertaining to watch. It helps that all of the panelists had successful and in a couple of cases, Hall of Fame careers. Even if they have an interesting way of explaining their points, they each bring a knowledge base to the show.

I think by their mere presence, the group makes Charles better. Not always agreeing with him, challenging him, or calling him out if you will, makes for much more entertaining television. You can tell that Barkley feels comfortable with the group he is on the set with. It really allows him to let more of his big personality out. But it is all about that comfort and everyone being comfortable with who that other person is and what their strengths are on the show. It works so well.

Think about the popularity of the show and how many other studio crews are taking elements of it and adapting it to their own shows. That includes TNT’s NHL on TNT pre/post/intermission shows. The formula works, but you have to have the right people on the set. The NHL version is growing into something of its own, this being its first season.

Now, just to throw a wrench in here, if and when Barkley were to leave the show, it would be a big blow. Right now, he’s the one guy they can least afford to lose. But, the Hall of Famer has hinted at calling it quits recently. TNT held a conference call just before the All-Star Game in February, in which Barkley and the Inside the NBA panel appeared. At the end of the call, Barkley was asked how much longer he’ll continue to be a broadcaster.

Via the Dallas Morning News’ Brad Townsend, Barkley said he has 2 years left on his contract
“and that’s probably going to be it for me.” Barkley continued, “It’s been a great, great thing. I love Ernie, Kenny, Shaq and everybody we work with. But I just don’t feel the need to work until the day I die. I don’t, man. I’ll be 61 years old if I finish out my contract. And I don’t want to die on TV. I want to die on the golf course or somewhere fishing. I don’t want to be sitting inside over [by] fat-ass Shaq [waiting] to drop dead.”

Barkley is must see television, mainly because of the environment he’s surrounds himself in.
There’s a strength in the numbers, not just the stats these former players have amassed, but
the bond they’ve formed. It makes for terrific, not terrible (in Barkley voice), television.

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BSM Writers

Meet The Market Managers: Ryan Hatch, Bonneville International Phoenix

“Our pitch is that these brands have a connection to the market. That works for us, and that works because it’s emotional. It works because it’s local. It works because of the creative messaging behind it.”

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For as long as I have known Ryan Hatch, he has been a good friend, encouraging me to take advantage of each opportunity put in front of me. When someone treats you that way, you cannot be anything but thrilled when you see them do the same thing.

Late last year, Ryan was elevated from a programming executive role with Bonneville to become Market Manager of the company’s Phoenix cluster. He is now overseeing every aspect of a building that he has worked in for a long time.

I thought it would be fun to visit with him to see what has changed. The last time I profiled him, he was serving as PD of Arizona Sports 98.7. The last time we profiled Bonneville Phoenix for this series, it was Scott Sutherland in the Market Manager’s chair. So, what has changed?

In this conversation, presented by Point to Point Marketing, Ryan and I discuss the changing nature of our business, retaining great talent, and supporting the person who’s tasked with filling your former position and leading the programming team forward. When a company is ahead of the curve with its digital strategy and generating strong ratings and revenue, what’s next?


Demetri Ravanos: So how has the transition gone moving from programming into the market manager’s seat? We’re a little over six months into the change. How steep has the learning curve been?

Ryan Hatch: You know what? It’s been fantastic. And I have to give so much credit to Scott Sutherland, who was in the chair before me, and others within the company for really preparing me for this moment. But it’s not just a transition from programming. I would think even if I came up through the sales, marketing or finance side there would be a curve.              

I’m learning new things every single day and loving it. So whether it’s six months or six years in this chair or more, I hope that I can always say that.                    

I love the job. I love the market. Obviously, you know, I’ve been here for such a long time and it’s the best chair to be in. I’m thrilled. 

DR: You mentioned Scott and I started thinking about this after you and I set a time to talk. There’s this advantageous environment of education there, right? Because Scott is still in the area. He held your job before. You’re obviously in the building and that’s got to be advantageous for Sean Thompson. How much do those conversations take place day-to-day? There seems to be an opportunity for everybody to learn and build on the person that came before them because they can just walk down the hall and ask. 

RH: Absolutely it can be advantageous because you’ve got institutional knowledge. Every person that’s been in your chair before can certainly provide important information to help expedite the onboarding process.              

The other side of it is making sure that there are clear boundaries. I can speak with Sean Thompson coming in on the programming side. My goal is to empower him and embolden Sean to take this brand to a different level with new ideas and thoughts.           

I’d been in that chair for so long, we were certainly ready for somebody new to come in with a new perspective and new experiences, and Sean’s done a wonderful job doing that. I think if you talk to Scott, he would probably say something similar. So when you ask the question, “is it advantageous?”, the answer is unquestionable. Yes, it is. At the same time, you have to really be clear on where those boundaries are, how much you want to give and share, and how much you want to let that person learn and experience it on their own as they’re creating their new environment, if that makes sense. 

DR: So with those boundaries, are there things you see Sean putting into place that make you think, “Oh man, that’s really cool. I kind of miss programing at this moment”? 

RH: Well, the irony is in asking that question, I think today is actually his 90th day on the job. So we’re still in the basic stages of him taking that chair.                   

He’s full of ideas, full of energy. I can’t wait to see so much of it come to fruition. But again, when you’re only three months in, you’re doing a lot of listening and a lot of learning before you dig in to start making change. I expect that to come, but he walked into a position with a great on-air staff, fantastic talent, an unbelievable digital team, with a great marketing and promotional support team behind him as well.                       

I’ll tell you what I’m most excited about is what’s going to happen this fall. After the listening and the learning is done, we’ll be starting to really build some exciting plans into the NFL season around the Cardinals and the NFL. We’re also hosting the Super Bowl in February of ’23 as well. So we’ve got a great big build coming here in Arizona. 

DR: So let’s talk a little bit about the future and where things can go, not just for Phoenix, but for Bonneville overall. I told you this a million times. What has always impressed me about the company, even before you and I got to know each other, was that you guys were so ahead of the curve on recognizing the value of digital content. Arizona Sports is not a radio station, it is a brand.             

I wonder now that you are in the market manager’s chair, how you look at all of the money from these different companies being put into podcasts. I mean, the deals being made to turn podcasts into TV shows or movies, do you ever think about what is possible or maybe what the next evolution for the digital side of Bonneville could or should be? 

RH: Well, I think as a company, and not to speak for Tanya Vea, who’s in a new EVP position helping oversee a lot of our content initiatives, we’re opening up a mechanism for local ideas to be funneled up to a team led by our VP of Podcasting, Sheryl Worsley. The idea is to be able to support a local that might scale on a national level and help it achieve that potential. I think that we’re very aggressive. I think that we’re also very strategic in the podcasting world.              

There’s a blessing and a curse there. The blessing is that that audience is expanding rapidly and the revenue’s been following, you know, slowly, but still following in that direction. The downside is how much time and energy and creativity a lot of our best talent have.                 

Do we want to put our talk show hosts, who are spending 4 hours a day creating live broadcast content, at the forefront of that effort? How many more hours a day of creative juice do they have left for a podcast or a passion project? It could be something that might not be entirely complimentary to the brand.                          

I think you have to be smart and strategic and understand how big of a bed it is you want to make. I think we’re being strategic about it and making the best decision for each individual circumstance. 

DR: So what about from a broadcast angle? As podcasting continues to grow and becomes the kind of thing that sellers see as easier to get clients involved with, what are the things that terrestrial radio is going to have to do to secure its own future? 

RH: Well, speaking on behalf of our properties here, where we’re all local news and all local sports. Really, that’s our business. I don’t think that there’s anything that can replicate the power of live, in the moment, information-based content. And that is the value proposition that broadcast has.                

Now, will that traditional radio audience continue to decline and find other venues? Potentially. I mean, that’s just natural, and I think that we’ve seen that accelerate through the pandemic. That doesn’t take away from the importance though.                         

If you look at Bonneville Phoenix, whether it’s Arizona Sports or KTAR, our streaming numbers are way, way up. Our monthly app users are way, way up. Our smart speaker usage is way, way up. And I think too many times we categorize one as digital and one as radio. I look at it more through the lens of what is a live broadcast and what is driven by more destination-based, story-based, topic-based choices. That’s a different experience and you can serve both. 

DR: What is your view of having that live content accessed by both radios and streaming devices? When you’re a programmer, I think it is it is easier to say, “Look, people are coming to this content. This is good content. That is what matters.” But now that you’re the market manager, I know you are a real advocate for total line reporting, but now the ratings take on this whole different meaning to you than they did before. What is your view of the right path forward to paint that picture easily and accurately for advertisers about just how powerful these brands are, whether it’s Arizona Sports or KTAR? 

RH: Thank goodness we have fantastic sales management and account executives on the streets telling that story and big brands to back them up with that unique content that our stations are delivering. And as I’ve told you in different settings over the years Demetri, Nielsen is one of many tools that tell that story. When we’re on the streets talking to a potential advertiser, and understand that our game is not as national or our market is not as regional, we are hyper-locally focused. In Phoenix, Arizona, that’s a lot of small to medium-sized businesses. So when we can walk in and share a total audience report that gives a glimpse of Nielsen, which we know is antiquated and really, really needs to be reformed and updated. You’ve got to bring your Google Analytics and your Triton numbers. You have so many other tools to use to evaluate how our content is being delivered and consumed. You’ve got to paint that entire total audience story, and I will tell you that it’s a story that is very well received in Phoenix with our products. 

DR: Maybe this is more of a question for your sales staff, but is it a matter of walking potential advertisers and current advertisers through each individual number, or do you find a way to synthesize it down into a simple illustration of how many people are listening to your content every day? 

RH: It’s not a numbers game. It’s not getting into detail about how many tens of thousands of listeners we have on one platform and how many on another and how many views or clicks on websites. Our pitch is that these brands have a connection to the market. That works for us, and that works because it’s emotional. It works because it’s local. It works because of the creative messaging behind it. When you have something that works for your advertisers, they’re not going to be coming in and scrutinizing the numbers left and right.                      

Now, you have to deliver to the audience, and we have significant audiences. In fact, I’ll tell you right now, combining everything together. And it’s not apples to apples, because these are all different channels. But our audience is here in Phoenix between our websites, our apps, and our radio distribution. Our audiences have never been better. I mean, that’s a wonderful and easy story to tell. 

DR: Play-by-play is obviously a big part of what you do on Arizona Sports. You and I have talked before about the landscape of Phoenix sports, and I think you’ve described it as, because Phoenix is a transplant market, you find yourself talking about everyone’s second favorite team.            

So how does that play with advertisers? Do they buy into the idea that this is a unifying thing or is there some concern that it is too much of a transplant market for the value returned by play-by-play doesn’t match the cost to advertise in that space? 

RH: Our original franchise, the Phoenix Suns, while, they had a disappointing end of the season, it couldn’t have been more galvanizing. That is the one team that has been here for 50-plus years. That orange blood does run deep. The Cardinals have had their moments. The Diamondbacks have the only championship in the major sports here, but that was back in 2001.             

I’ll answer that question in a couple of ways. Number one, we are catering to the fans and to the super fans, but we try to create content that is going to be accessible and interesting for those that would claim that any of the franchises are their second favorite team in a given league. When you move into a market and you head to the office or nowadays maybe it’s a Zoom call, you still want to be able to have a conversation about something that’s relevant. You want a shared experience with your coworker or a neighbor, somebody at school when you’re hanging out waiting to up the kids. So often that conversation is sports.                        

We have a fantastic sports market. Now, where’s the passion level? Is it as high as a Boston or Philadelphia? Of course not and we’re not going to act like it is. But at the end of the day, what does an advertiser look for? They’re looking for an audience and they’re looking for something exclusive to put their message on. That’s what we’re able to offer with our play-by-play. On top of that, what’s become more and more important to us in our model, especially on the digital side over the years, is the access to those decision-makers, to the coaches, the exclusive access to the general managers with weekly calls, and things like player shows.                 

There’s so much more that you can offer beyond just the game itself that makes these partnerships great for our business and the advertising community. 

DR: So coming out of what is being called The Great Resignation, what are you experiencing as a market manager and what are your other hiring managers experiencing? What are the new challenges of recruiting, whether it is sales or programing, any kind of talent in an environment like this? 

RH: Well, let’s add to that and talk about inflationary pressures as well. I mean, there are so many factors at play right now, and I think it’s as tough as I can ever remember it.                 

What we’re doing here at Bonneville Phoenix is really leaning into our culture and making sure that we’re an employer of choice because we have a culture that people want to be a part of. It’s a good team environment full of hungry people that want to succeed not just for themselves. So the more hungry, humble, and smart people we find, the better off we’re going to be.

Now, that doesn’t mean that we haven’t lost. There’s been a dramatic shuffle. Right now, I can say that we’re close to a full boat, but that wasn’t the case a month ago. There are so many different forces at play right now. It is a difficult environment. Our news side alone faces unique challenges. News itself has been under attack for multiple years. Don’t you think that burns people out?           

Absolutely I have concerns, but what can we control? Well, we can focus on executing the vision that Bonneville has provided. It’s built on passionate people and innovation. It is about creating a culture people want to be a part of. 

DR: We’ve heard a lot about burnout when people talk about why they leave a job in any industry. We hear about work-life balance. You’re responsible for the entire building, so what are you telling your managers on the sales and programming side about creating an environment for employees that respects that those are real and valid concerns while still maintaining the level of expectation of quality for Arizona Sports and KTAR. 

RH:  We’re still committed to the highest standards, and we always will be. And we found that certain parts of the business can work pretty effectively from home, while other parts of the business really can’t. I will tell you, on the content side working from home, we did it when we had to. We did it, I would say fairly effectively for a few extended periods. But overall, in a local news and local sports environment that really is driven by the breaking news, the need to work together in a space is real. You just can’t do things as quickly or as effectively or as creatively if you’re separated. You just can’t.                  

Now, on the sales side, we want them on the streets. We want them out of the office, but there is a balance. So what are we asking our great sales managers to do? We’re asking them just to make sure that they are up to speed on where the activity is and that we’re doing all the jobs that need to be done. Do I ever see us going back to five days a week in the office? I don’t. I think that ship has sailed and I think that’s just fine. I think there’s some real benefit to that.  

The way to make this all work is to empower our department heads to come up with a plan that’s going to work best for them, for their people, and deliver on what our expectations are for the business. And then as leaders, we have to understand that the plan is going to be evolving. It really is. This is not going to be decided on a new policy set. I think that we’re in a new world, probably for the rest of our lives. 

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BSM Writers

Broadcasting Fills The Baseball Void For Keith Moreland

“When I got through… I wanted to do something with my life and I get that same feeling with broadcasting.”

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Austin American-Statesman

Sports color analysts are more often than not former players. This has been a consistent norm across sports broadcasting at all levels. The analyst is there to add “color” to the play-by-play broadcaster’s metaphorical and verbal “drawing” of the game. For former MLB slugger and catcher, Keith Moreland, this was the surprise post-playing retirement career that has boosted him to a key figure in Austin media and national media alike.

Moreland played football and baseball at the University of Texas before making his way to the MLB for 12 years with key contributions to the Philadelphia Phillies and Chicago Cubs in the 1980s.

Moreland reminisced on his decision to play baseball full time: “I thought I was going to be in the NFL, but Earl Campbell changed that. I had just played summer ball. We had won a championship and I missed the first few days of two-a-days. I hadn’t even had a physical yet and I’m in a scrimmage. I stepped up to this freshman running back and as he ducked his shoulder, one of his feet hit my chest and the other hit my face mask and he kept on truckin’. I got up and I thought ‘I could be a pretty good baseball player.’

So I told Coach Royal after practice I was going to focus on baseball and he asked ‘what took you so long? We were surprised you came back because we think you have a really good shot at playing professional baseball.'”

It was a good choice for Moreland. He was part of the 1973 College World Series winning Texas Longhorns baseball team. While at Texas Moreland hit .388 and became the all-time leader in hits for the College World Series. After being drafted by the Phillies in the 7th round of the 1975 draft, Moreland would go-on to play in the majors from 1978 to 1989.

“You go your whole life trying to get to play professionally. When I got through my opportunity to play in the big leagues, I wanted to do something with my life and I get that same feeling with broadcasting.”

Broadcasting was not the original retirement plan for Moreland. He first tried his luck at coaching with his first stop being his alma mater as an assistant for the Longhorns. At the time, Bill Schoening (a Philadelphia native and Phillies fan), was the radio play-by-play broadcaster. Schoening made Moreland a go-to for a pre-game interview and convinced him to come on talk shows. Schoening even convinced Moreland to practice live broadcasting skills by taking a recorder to games and listening back to them to learn.

“Bill was the guy who brought me onboard and I still have those tapes and I really learned from them, but I don’t want anyone else to ever hear them!” Moreland adds with a chuckle on how far he has come in over 25 years of broadcasting.

Moreland has been a key part of University of Texas radio broadcasts for baseball since the 1990s and has catapulted that broadcast experience to Texas high school football, Longhorn football radio and television broadcasts, ESPN, the Little League World Series, the Chicago Cubs and more since hanging up his cleats and picking up a microphone.

While his playing days are well behind him, Moreland still takes the spirit of his professional athlete background to his broadcasting:

“If you don’t bring energy to your broadcast, somebody’s gonna turn the game on and wonder ‘what’s wrong? Are they losing the game?’”, Moreland remarks, “So you have to come prepared and with energy for the broadcasts.”

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